The Centrality of Community

The Relationship Between Religion and Community

The sun was setting much earlier in January; do you remember? The cold evening chill would quiet the campus by five o'clock every day. You were studying for finals, probably. But I was in Boylston Hall, breaking my fast with the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS). It was the middle of Ramadan, a holy month signifying the revelation of the Koran--a time when millions of Muslims all over the world commit to day-long fasts from food and water. And for the first time, I was doing it on my own--without my family--here at Harvard.

Of course, I was not alone. Dozens of Muslims like me on campus tested their faith and their willpower by fasting every day. But even at the sunset dinners, when I broke my fast surrounded by my Muslim sisters and brothers, I felt isolated. I'd walk in by myself at 4:45 or 4:50, just in time to hear the evening prayers. And I'd walk out alone at 5:30, maybe a little more energized to study (having just eaten), but most of all longing to call home--and picturing my family's dinner table. I thought this feeling of lonely disconnectedness was normal. I didn't expect more.

As I mulled over these feelings, I began to consider the importance of camaraderie in campus religious organizations. I understand that these groups have a sensitive role to play at a university campus like ours. They have to provide a forum for spirituality, learning and friendship. However, I have come to realize that, for me, it all has to begin with friendship. Maybe it's because I'm a first-year, still floating around campus, desperately looking for others who share my interests. But I truly believe that, at its essence, a religious group needs to establish mutual trust before it can even think of moving on to larger goals; that trust is founded on casual interactions.

The stated purpose of HIS, as explained in the Unofficial Guide, speaks directly to this need: they organize daily prayers, multicultural dinners, scholar's lectures, sports activities, Ramadan iftars (break fasts), even a bimonthly newsletter. Each activity adds to a sense of community. And a great deal of effort is devoted to promoting interaction through gatherings of all shapes and sizes. However, the importance of interaction is easy for a religious organization to forget; it was exactly the casual interaction that was lacking from my HIS experience.

Fortunately, a few weeks after Ramadan, a Friday night discussion group changed my ambivalent attitude towards HIS. I sat beside about 30 other students, the largest gathering of Muslims I had yet come across at Harvard. I listened to them all make suggestions about strengthening the HIS community. And I realized that, in our enthusiasm to strengthen our personal faith, we had forgotten about the communal foundations on which that faith must be grounded.

In these last few weeks, I have been very encouraged to hear HIS members propose changes. As a result, I have begun thinking about the Harvard Islamic society's goals and practices; I asked some questions at the Interfaith Forum office; and I came to a number of interesting realizations, some of which can apply to any campus religious group.

First, I stubbornly believe that religion in a university setting ultimately exists in the nexus between individual and communal experience. We do pray together and we may share ideas, but I don't think we can really preach to each other or hope for uniformity. Nonetheless, community definitely does strengthen the individual. It can provide support when sacrifices and commitments become too weighty. And it can be a source of growth.

Second, as we support and enlighten each other, I think we also must remember that we have a responsibility to curious outsiders. The question that any student religious group faces is how to reach the community at large without imposing on the individual religious experience. I think the most effective learning happens by example, through modeling behavior. I hope that interacting with students who are academically and socially active yet also find the strength and time for religion would inspire others to explore their own religious heritage. Awareness comes with exposure. That's the most valuable thing any Harvard religious group can offer. HIS organized an Islamic Awareness Week in the fall, with everything from visual displays in the Science Center to speaker forums in the evenings. On that level, I wish every campus group would do the same. I know that I would attend.

Finally, I would encourage all religious groups to organize a broader variety of social activities in order to give a fuller context to the religious experience. Without the trust born of casual interaction, a religious organization will not be a true community; its members will leave events feeling isolated and strangely discontented. However, when members of a religious group are immersed in friendly and varied interchange, the group becomes more than an after-school activity; it takes on the feeling of community.

A few weeks ago, the Catholic Students Association held its semiannual first year spaghetti dinner. The event, which occurred during the Christian time of Lent, brought dozens to a deliciously informal feast and pulled together the community. After the dinner, students dispersed in groups, chatting together as they headed back to their dorms under the fluorescent lights of the yard. As they discussed blocking groups and upcoming papers, the first year formal and the winter thaw, they unknowingly took part in the most valuable--and yes, religious--interchange Harvard can offer.

As a new HIS member still trying to explore the organization's many sides, I want to thank everyone who, ever since Ramadan, has whole-heartedly welcomed me into the circle. But I'd also like to remind all campus religious organizations to hold regular open discussions and review their purpose statements. It's easy to get off track when we are not looking.

Lama N. Jarudi '00 is a first year living in Matthews Hall.